“Permaculture is revolution disguised as organic gardening.”
~ Graham Burnett, ‘Permaculture – A Beginners Guide’
Permaculture is about designing for sustainable living. It is based on three ethics: Care for the earth; Care for people; and Fair share.
To become familiar with permaculture ethics, a simple exercise is for each of the ethics, think of examples of how you: have applied them in your life; could apply them in your life in the future; have observed them applied by others.
Care for the earth
Applied in your life: Green and clean. We eschew chemicals, rather use natural household, personal and garden products to promote a healthy environment on both a micro and macro scale.
Could apply in your life: Think ahead. Plant more trees on our own property and others for future generations.
Observed it applied in other: Ripple effect. One of my Tafe horticulture teachers, a member of Orara Valley Rivercare has been part of the work done restoring sections of the river, planting native species to re-establish the canopy as well as flood clean up, removal of weed species and camphor laurels, important work to her as she grew up there, left, then returned to farm the local property that belonged to her parents.
Care for people
Applied in your life: Do unto others. We share our produce, items we make, bake, create or are given and our time with family, friends and the community. We allow them to do the same for us.
Could apply in your life: Time share. Volunteer at a local community garden to both learn, apply what I have learned and share skills with others.
Observed it applied in other: Educators. Since I began studying at Tafe in 2017 it’s been my privilege to be beneficiary of the expertise of industry professionals who shepherd diverse students through a set curriculum at the same time beyond the ambit of their teaching roles freely instil not only course knowledge but interest and a desire to pursue it further in many cases.
Applied in your life: Stop and think. Mindful consumers, before we make purchases as well as our personal D.I.Y, reuse, up/recycle, make do, mend, borrow criteria we consider what is environmentally responsible and who benefits from the purchase.
Could apply in your life: Knowledge bank. For me it isn’t enough to just acquire and apply skills myself, I don’t feel like the process is worthwhile unless I have shared it, and helped someone else discover something that inspires them. I hope to write or teach or at least advocate what I have learned and value, as many worthy students of permaculture have gone on to do admirably.
Observed it applied in other: Lend a hand. Non-profit organisations like Kiva, an online lending platform who crowdfund loans via connecting online lenders to underserved communities and unfinanced entrepreneurs across the globe.
“It is time for all of us to make changes about how we live our lives and to follow a path of the heart. By following our intuition and inspiration we encourage our own acts of heartfelt genius and boldness. This makes us feel alive and vital, gives us a great purpose and harnesses parts of ourselves we may have neglected or didn’t even know we had. We no longer feel overwhelmed by the way the Earth’s resources are managed, but recognise that change is in our hands, yours and mine, the hands of extraordinary people who have made a leap of understanding and are determined to make a difference. We become part of the change by becoming part of the solution.”
~ Glennie Kindred, ‘Earth Wisdom’
How do permaculture ethics fit with your life?
Between now and July 2020 I’m studying Certificate IV Permaculture via Tafe NSW Digital. Studying online, I discovered, involves a lot of writing. This year of study, I think, might lend itself to some blog posts… follow along if you are interested in learning what I learn during my permaculture journey.
“We are not good at recognizing distant threats even if their probability is 100%.
Society ignoring [peak oil] is like the people of Pompeii ignoring the rumblings below Vesuvius.”
~James R. Schlesinger
Following on from last week’s “if permaculture is the answer climate change is the question” … Part 2 of my research project for my Certificate IV Permaculture study via Tafe NSW Digital online studies to gain understanding about the why of permaculture asked me to share three resources useful to either explain or give more information about Peak Oil.
Confession time… I missed the popularising of the term “peak oil“. Up ’til now I thought we were heading for a plain old oil crisis. However, I was no less concerned after I did a few Google searches and found these:
“Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of crude oil extraction is reached, after which the rate of extraction is expected to begin to decline… forever. It simply does not matter why peak crude oil extraction is reached, the peak is the peak regardless of the cause. The cause could be geological or it could be economics but most likely it will be a combination of the two.” ~ Peak Oil Barrel
“Proponents of peak oil theory do not necessarily claim that conventional oil sources will run out immediately and create acute shortages, resulting in a global energy crisis. Instead, the theory holds that, with the production of easily extractable oil peaking and inevitably declining (even in formerly bounteous regions such as Saudi Arabia), crude-oil prices are likely to remain high and even rise further over time, especially if future global oil demand continues to rise along with the growth of emerging economies such as China and India. Although peak oil theory may not portend prohibitively expensive gasoline any time soon, it does suggest that the days of inexpensive fuel, as were seen for more than a decade after the collapse of OPEC cartel prices in the mid-1980s, will probably never return.” ~ Encyclopaedia Britannica
And, seriously concerned by what I learned during my assignment research:
1. James Hansen
Climatologist and activist introduced to me when I viewed David Attenborough – Climate Change: The Facts, who, I learned, delivers the bad news that too many stakeholders are conveniently dismissing the science out of self-interest and that 30 years on, world is failing ‘miserably’ to address climate change. He holds energy corporations and business accountable because dollar-wise fossil fuels continue to be the cheapest energy source and advocates a carbon fee to make fossil fuel prices truly reflective of the cost to the environment, “Right now they are getting away with using the atmosphere as a free waste dump, where air pollution, water pollution, and climate change are not included in the price of fossil fuels.”
Given the CSIRO “is an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research. Its chief role is to improve the economic and social performance of industry for the benefit of the community” what I learned wasn’t what I was hoping for.
The CSIRO report Oil and Gas: A Roadmap for unlocking future growth opportunities for Australia “identifies four high-impact pathways to growth that are enabled by science and technology” and the content suggests that industry is committed to business as usual as much as possible while being willing to take onboard climate change considerations only necessarily. It’s not an entirely reassuring report.
The energy sector does its homework.
“This report was informed by industry consultation. The perspective on the future of the sector, including major opportunities and challenges, was based on the opinions of executives and managers from oil and gas operators, service firms and Government agencies. Dozens of interviews with technical experts from Universities and CSIRO provide the report with a solid perspective on technology developments. In all, approximately 80 interviews were conducted to inform this report during the first half of 2017. Analysis of the content of these interviews, and additional desktop research helped to shape this report. It therefore represents a consensus view of the trajectory of the industry, developed by synthesising executive opinions, technical expertise and scientific research.”
The energy sector is committed to remaining viable.
“What can the Australian oil and gas sector do, in the face of considerable obstacles, to remain viable into the coming decades?”
The energy sector is prepared to spend money to remain viable; costs I assume that will be passed on to consumers.
“What investments in science and technology are needed to prevail?”
The energy sector is pragmatic.
“Global citizens are increasingly adept at shifting public sentiment around issues important to them. Using such tools as social media, groups of people can create strong opposition to business interests, shape public discourse, and influence government policy. A key challenge for the oil and gas sector in this regard is earning and retaining social licence for its resource projects.”
The energy sector needs to become environmentally accountable not only financially, or decades of investment driven status quo will continue.
3. Four Corners
In 2006 Four Corners did a report about Peak Oil.
I learned that world leaders and consumers both tend to be primarily concerned with prices at the fuel pump and should there be lack, “up-ending comfortable urban lifestyles that rely on oil for the cheap transport of people and goods and for the manufacture of thousands of mundane household and office items – from mousepads, banknotes and drink bottles to carpets, clothes, cosmetics and deodorants.”
“The easy oil has already been produced. The remaining reserves, as significant and substantial as they are, are going to be more expensive and gradually more demanding to produce. Therefore, the future capacity is slower to come on stream than what it has been the traditional past.”
“Everybody in the industry realises that oil and gas are the backbone of global economies. Somehow, I guess politicians felt that this was not going to be an issue on their watch, that it was too far into the future, and therefore didn’t pay attention to it.”
I learned that the focus on are there or aren’t there enough oil reserves has detracted from the greater consideration of what happens if… when… society continues its uptake.
What will happen? David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, environmental designer, author & futurist, offered this in his interview with Adam Fenderson from Resilience in 2004 on peak oil and Permaculture:
“People are driven mad by the total continuous drive to consume and the hollowness of this sort of existence, the lack of community and identity. In an energy-descent world, a lot of those destructive behaviors are just set aside, because there are more important things to do. So, at the extreme it’s a bit like what happens in a society where there’s a natural disaster. Community is re-discovered, people set aside their differences and get working on fundamental things. A lot of the angst about alienation and all sorts of seemingly intractable problems almost evaporate. For a lot of people, I think this would be an enormous relief. Most people can’t get off the treadmill because of peer pressure and individual and collective addiction in society. Sometimes people recognize a problem, want to change, but they need a crisis, something that affects their peers, so they can all change together.”
What’s your take on peak oil? A theory, or do you heed the rumblings of a crisis waiting to happen?
“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,
the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” ~ Bill Mollison
For me, part of gaining an understanding about permaculture is not only the how and what but the why. One of the things I learned is… if permaculture is the answer, climate change is the question.
Climate change is an issue many of us, including me, are coming to terms with. It is real, and is causing major shifts in the way humans live and societies operate. Permaculture begins at a personal level, then local, proceeding to a collective and global level, exactly where we’re feeling the effects of climate change, and why we should apply permaculture’s three core ethics to how we live.
• Care of the Earth.
• Care of People (starting with yourself).
• Fair Share (of resources and abundance).
I thought I was climate change aware but a research project for my Certificate IV Permaculture study via Tafe NSW Digital online studies asking me to share three resources useful to either explain or give more information about climate change, two of which, below, I’m long familiar with but the third led me to David Attenborough – Climate Change: The Facts, a documentary, which led to further viewing… Climate Change: The Evidence.
I was somewhat shocked to learn that we are at a tipping point, perplexed by a screen grab of Donald Trump inferring the climate change industry is all about money making, discomforted digesting facts that individual efforts will not accomplish enough to mitigate climate change if global corporate practices and government policies are not enacted. Some comfort lay in solutions and actions proffered: changes in individual energy, diet and consumption along with collective activism, and my resolution to do more in my own small way, consuming less and advocating more beginning with Australia’s elected officials.
Barbara Kingsolver is a favourite author I’ve long admired for her passion for the environment. I’ve read all her novels including the ecological themed Prodigal Summer (2000) and non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007). However, Flight Behavior (2012) crystallised the significance of climate change. Although a fictional novel set in rural Tennessee, the plot hinges on the occurrence of millions of migrating Monarch Butterflies in a valley where they’ve never been before: an alarming indicator of ecological imbalance attributable to human activities occasioning critical displacement of a species from their typical wintering location in Mexico due to the effects of deforestation to a habitat that experiences harsh winters they are not at all equipped to survive, and loss of migratory habitat due to monocropping of land along their flight path. Flight Behavior’s central premise is a very real story about the causes and consequences of global climate change and the polarities of societal attitudes.
It led to further reading on the Monarch Butterfly. I learned local effects have global consequences: in the Northern Hemisphere Monarch butterflies ordinarily migrate from Canada and North America to Mexico however industrial agricultural practices, illegal logging, deforestation and extreme weather are a threat to the species.
I read Flight Behavior in 2013, sparking greater awareness: prompting me to actively pursue reduction of my personal ecological footprint. Since, I’ve been an advocate for climate change awareness and Monarch Butterflies, following the species’ plight and seeking out information sources such as www.worldwildlife.org 2016 article Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve: 40% Decline in Illegal Logging; Threats from Climate Rage on and more recent 2019 article The Vanishing Flights of the Monarch Butterfly.
Over a decade ago I attended a talk by Natalie Isaacs, founder of 1 Million Women who was on her way to building a global movement to empower women everywhere to act on climate change through the way they live. I joined. Since then 1 Million Women via its contributors, social media platforms and campaigns has inspired and informed me about climate change and the many ways I can make a difference every day in my own life such as: Live a Low Carbon Life; My Nana Says; Leave it on the Shelf; Eat Your Leftovers; Less Meat More Beans; 1 Million Conversations, etc.
What climate change articles or resources have you found that are useful to explain or give more information about climate change or have made a difference to your life?
“Starting a garden without a design will end in tears as surely as starting a renovation project without a plan. The design should answer questions about sun and shade, wildlife, proximity and access, water, organic matter and nutrient cycling, local seasons, crops, and weather. The answers will be different in every situation but the principles are the same.” Linda Woodrow
By the end of my year of studying Certificate IV Permaculture study via Tafe NSW Digital online I will have created a permaculture design, thus the final get-to-know-you assignment question…
Q. Describe the property you are planning on doing your permaculture design. Are you doing doing a rural or an urban design?
I’m planning on doing an urban permaculture design; applying it to our 822 sqm residential block in the hinterland village of Taylors Arm located in the Nambucca Valley on the Mid North/Coffs Coast of NSW.
Our three-bedroom house was constructed in the 1930’s of asbestos fibro, corrugated iron roof, with wide verandahs oriented north-east, 1980’s HardiPlank weatherboard addition, and recent garage and two carports.
The yard is planted with several existing gardens and a variety of trees and shrubs: a mixture of inherited planting; our own, low maintenance bird-bee-butterfly habitat intended to survive our absence and passively cool the house; the remainder is mowed grass.
The property has a north east aspect and the block slopes gently down to the north west.
Bureau of Meteorology Climate Zone: Subtropical, distinctly dry winter.
Australia Building Codes Board Climate Zone: 2, warm humid summer, mild winter.
Köppen Climate Classification: Cfa – humid subtropical.
The native soil profile of the block comprises a significant C horizon predominantly ridge gravel, B horizon of clay, with a thin A horizon and a bare O horizon
Our water supply comes via the sky and all roof areas into 4 rainwater tanks holding approximately 36000 litres/8000 gallons, although in a water emergency we have infrastructure to pump from the adjacent river via a neighbour’s line.
Our water use is conservative and we reuse as much water as we practically can: toilet, bathroom sink and shower waste water is directed into a septic tank; an occasionally-used bathtub runs into the front garden, washing machine water is hooked up to a hose and sprinkler in the front yard; kitchen sink water is diverted into two 20 litre containers used daily to hand water the vegetable and herb garden.
When we returned after our 2016 travels to live here permanently, we built a 28 sqm vegetable garden cage in the backyard -because dog, possums, bandicoots, birds- with inground planting areas and raised beds which were filled with media we created by combining soil from the neighbouring vacant field, straw, newspaper, Dinofert Organic Fertiliser and composted organic material.
In 2017 we began sharing a flock of chickens with our neighbour. Their coop is in the back corner of her yard, which we access via a common area at the rear of the properties where we have also built a compost pile, maintain an intentionally biodiverse weedy-scrubby bird-bee-butterfly belt as well as mowed grass area which gives us access to the nearby churchyard where I collect straw for the chicken coop after its grass has been slashed.
Recently we constructed from recycled materials a compact glass house/potting shed so I have a place to start seedlings, propagate and grow year-round.
“Permaculture is that art of the possible.”
~Graham Bell, ‘The Permaculture Garden”
What do you think? Thoughts and suggestions welcome.
Even studying online, students get to answer the usual get-to-know-you classroom questions.
Q. What you want to achieve by doing this course?
Initially, from this course I want to achieve: greater familiarity and understanding about permaculture; how to observe; some proficiency in permaculture design; how to promote and apply permaculture ethics and principles personally, locally and globally.
One of the first of Bill Mollison’s key insights I read was:
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action…”
Which speaks to a bothersome personal consideration… pragmatic motivation behind our move from city working life to a simple, creative rural village lifestyle: health. Aged in our mid 50’s and mid 60’s respectively both myself and G.O. husband have orthopaedic issues which limit the type & duration of physical activities we comfortably manage. We do what we want to do but we need to work smarter not harder.
Practically, from this course I would like achieve an improvement to our property’s water strategy, accomplish more productive use of the property, and ultimately realise a permaculture design across the entire property.
Since 2011 I’ve been utilising various social media platforms; a member of online, blogging, Instagram and Facebook communities, sharing thoughts, dreams, ideas, information, inspiration and our journey. The manifesto of my personal blog @daleleelife101 is Live Simple Home Made Grown Local Creative Better.
A long-time supporter of local and farmers markets, after considerable deliberation whether to participate in a selling capacity while despairing of hyper-consumerism, I’ve recently decided to take @daleleelife101 into the real world in the form of a much needed stallholder at our local village markets, primarily to support the community but also as a tangible means to walk my talk… I would like to achieve from this course a productive permaculture garden that contributes useful and inspirational garden produce and seeds excess to our household needs.
Personally, from this course I would like to expand my scope, to become a permaculture advocate.
Foremost, by studying and adopting permaculture practices I aim to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s advice: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“If you give up on trying to change larger structures and just go off on what some would say is a personal indulgence or being a survivalist, it can be seen as incredibly negative or pessimistic. But the other way to think of it is this: through manifesting the way we live and acting as if it’s normal, you’re defending yourself against depression and dysfunction, but you’re also providing a model that others can copy. And that is absolutely about bringing large-scale change…” is reassuring testimony from David Holmgren.
What have you achieved, or do you hope to achieve through permaculture?
Before I committed to my year of online Certificate IV Permaculture study via Tafe NSW Digital, permaculture and I had a getting-to-know-you period thanks to a wide selection of freely shared online resources.
Formidable Vegetable (check out their music clips on YouTube)
Wiki Who’s Who
Other resources in no particular order…
“Sitting at our back doorsteps, all we need to live a good life lies about us. Sun, wind, people, buildings, stones, sea, birds and plants surround us. Cooperation with all these things brings harmony, opposition to them brings disaster and chaos.” ― Bill Mollison,
Disclaimer: daleleelife101.blog is a personal blog. Where I share resources and links I’m doing so subjectively, rather than as endorsement, and I receive no cash or kind benefits from doing so. Any material contained in this blog has been prepared without taking into account the reader’s objectives, situation or needs but with the best of intentions to entertain. Before acting on any material in this blog I recommend the reader consider whether it is appropriate for the reader’s particular circumstances. I do not accept liability for any errors, omissions or inclusions in the contents. If this blog contains reference to anything at all, I recommend the reader take into account their own thoughts, feelings & all possible outcomes before making any decisions or taking any actions, deliberate or unintentional, as a result of reading this blog.
What are some great permaculture resources you’ve found?
What is permaculture, you ask, as I did and found out it wasn’t what I thought it was, but more.
Permaculture is a word originally coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid 1970’s to describe an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.” ~ holmgren.com.au
However, befittingly, permaculture and therefore the definition of what it is, is ever evolving.
A fortnight ago I began my year of online Certificate IV Permaculture study via Tafe NSW Digital. Studying online, I discovered, involves a lot of writing. Fortunately, I like writing, and it’s one of the things I missed having time to do over the past couple of years while I commuted to and attended face-to-face horticulture classes at Tafe NSW. During that time I shared snippets of my horticulture studies experience pictorially via daily Instagram posts.
This year of study, I think, might lend itself to some blog posts… if you would like to follow my permaculture journey.
The first get-to-know-you assignment question…
Q. What attracts you to permaculture? You can also mention how you found out about permaculture and what permaculture experience you have had if you like.
A. After living and working fulltime in Sydney for the decade it took us -husband and me- to be financially prepared, living as sustainably as you can in a rented one bedroom apartment in a concrete neighbourhood immediately adjacent to a train line in the inner-west outskirts of the inner-city 2.5 kms from the CBD… keeping the faith by diligently supporting farmers markets and practising living lightly, connecting with and being informed and inspired by many like-minded people, travelling back and forth -1000 km roundtrip- on public holiday long weekends and summer vacations to our small residential property in a rural village on the Mid North/Coffs Coast… three and a half years ago we tree-changed to live there fulltime with the intention of being as self-reliant as possible.
After taking a holiday break when we travelled around Australia in 2016, I began studying fulltime in 2017 while looking for a new direction; following a dream to live simply, creatively, have a garden, and study horticulture but unsure where the direction would lead me.
I completed Certificate II Horticulture in June 2019, Certificate III Production Horticulture in 2018 and Certificate III Horticulture in 2017 at Tafe NSW, Coffs Harbour Education Campus.
A long-time follower of online media: websites; e-newsletters; social media; any sort of information and communication, I had gleaned a perception of commodified – buy this book, pay to attend that course- permaculture… somewhat misconstrued as it turns out.
The actuality of permaculture as a philosophy and available every-person liveable culture became apparent after not too much research when a deeper interest was piqued upon serendipitous discovery of its offering as a Tafe NSW online course; the list of course units hinting there was more to permaculture than I had believed… beginning with design.
What I discovered was both broader and more nuanced than I had understood before my further reading revealed permaculture’s concertina-like scope confers it traction in every context of day-to-day life, and the personal revelation that permaculture is holistic and inclusive of what I had considered were my assorted interests – environmental sustainability & stewardship, resource and land conservation, regenerative horticulture & agriculture, organics, biodynamics, gardening, living sustainably, local community- but offers much more: not a counterculture but an egalitarian toolkit.
“One of the most important things about permaculture is that it is founded on a series of principles that can be applied to any circumstance—agriculture, urban design, or the art of living. The core of the principles is the working relationships and connections between all things.”
― Juliana Birnbaum Fox, Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide
What attracts you to permaculture?
I’m preparing to launch @daleleelife101 -and myself- as a stallholder into the world of local markets. A long-term patron of local markets… and not so local… we visited our fair share of markets when we travelled around Australia in 2016… for years I have bored the G.O. witless with my to-ing and fro-ing on the possibility of realising my dream of having my own stall. On the one hand there is -I believe- too much gratuitous consumer stuff being thrust at us these days. On the other hand, I derive great satisfaction from creating simple inexpensive household and personal products. Finally it came down to monkey see monkey do: I hope to inspire others with my manifesto… #LiveSimpleHomeMadeGrownLocalCreativeBetter.
As soon as we tree-changed from city to country three and a half years ago I began working on our mission statement to… “follow our dream of living simply and creatively” by making as many food, household and personal items as my time and talents allow… simple seasonal condiments and preserves, flavoured salts, dried herbs, tea, cleaning products, deodorant, fragrance… some of which as well as plants and seeds will translate to a market stall, and hopefully -time and talent allowing- I’ll be inspired to try my hand at some new creative projects.
After realising another dream -studying Horticulture at Tafe NSW which involved me driving 160 km roundtrip to and from Coffs Harbour twice a week for two and a half years during semester time- I’ve turned my focus to home, studying Certificate IV Permaculture via Tafe NSW Digital… a commitment of additional course hours but no commute, hopefully scope for further creativity.
A multitude of ideas and options crisscross my mind but I keep returning to the intention… keep it real. Other than investing in a small selection of beautiful and reusable amber glass bottles all other bottles and jars are recycled as well as reusable, keeping plastic as much as possible to a minimum.
After I complete a Food Safety Supervision training course in early August, my plan is to begin with the next local Taylors Arm markets, held our lovely old village hall. I’ve persuaded -I hope- a couple of neighbours -a baker and a maker- and maybe the G.O. to have a go as well. Part of the motivation that finally prompted me to act is my wish for a successful & regular village market. More stallholders are needed… be the change you want to see in your community.
“Don’t underestimate the power of your vision to change the world. Whether that world is your office, your community, an industry or a global movement, you need to have a core belief that what you contribute can fundamentally change the paradigm or way of thinking about problems.” Leroy Hood
“Village life gently swirled around them, with the perpetual ebb and flow of people, scurrying in every direction. The village was a living, organic entity, with blood flowing through its veins, and with a definite pulse and heartbeat. It had its own distinct personality and its own dark caustic humour, and was constantly processing and regurgitating information through its winding, meandering streets.”
Ghosts of Christmas Past visit me each year, sometimes twice as we continue our new tradition of Christmas in July. The ghosts are family, welcome and regular visitors to my kitchen. I look forward to the festive season, find pleasure in Christmas by melding my memories with what gives me joy nowadays. However, it doesn’t always come easy. Every year we ask ourselves will we put up the Christmas tree. End-of-year-tired-adult-me says no. Six-year-old-me says please can we. So we do. Six-year-old-me, lover of twinkle, adorns the tree with lights and we all enjoy the ambience but it comes down a day or so after Christmas Day as adult-me likes an orderly house. The ghosts remind me that festive spirit doesn’t come from excessive doing and spending and standing in line to buy overpriced seafood. They help me remember how much I loved our homemade celebrations.
My memories are scant of Christmases from the early years but the marks on my psyche are carved deep. A single Christmas, age five, the last at home with Mum, and Santa’s gift of a blue child-size table and chairs. I was twenty-ish before I discovered by chance it was handmade by my Dad. It stayed around for a long time, later bequeathed to my seventeen years younger sister.
However, when I think of Christmas, my memories invariably crystallize at my grandparents’ farm. The living room with its pine tree I ‘helped’ my grandfather chop during an expedition in the bush, placed in a bucket of water and stationed in the small corner next to the fireplace. Simply decorated with ornaments gathered over the years, not new; not much in that house was.
The Christmas tree skirted by a few wrapped gifts modest in nature and number. I could also -as I had been good… of course- expect a gift on Christmas morning from Santa and Christmas stocking filled with useful things, story books, colouring pencils and small treats. A distinct memory is the long-awaited Christmas morning of the much-desired baby doll… which Santa inconveniently left behind the tree. Forbearance is still not one of my virtues. Nor singing, another clear recollection is my uncle suggesting I sing Silent Night… silently.
My nanna’s kitchen is one of my realest memories. If I am very focused, barely breathing, I can transport myself to it, six years old again. Our festive food was made in this -tacked on to the back of the house after the old outside kitchen burned to the ground- boxy room with its wood stove, faded paint timber dresser, Laminex table and modest Kelvinator refrigerator.
Plates of Christmas cake appeared when visitors did and disappeared quickly along with welcomed cups of tea or glasses of beer depending on the hour of day, sat side by side with Bakelite trays of child tempting treats; lollies, assorted nuts from which as the only grandchild I would freely pick the cashews & brazil nuts, irresistible crunchy sweet red-coated peanuts.
Baked vegetables, I’m sure there was a whole panful cooked in dripping but my eyes were on the prize, sticky baked white sweet potatoes, served with roast chicken -wing for me please- with bread & onion stuffing and gravy -rather than the more common roasted rooster- selected for the occasion from the laying hens and prepared by my grandfather… thankfully I didn’t make the connection when I was ‘helping’ him although the memory of the stink of chicken feathers and skin scalded in boiling water is fresh as ever decades later.
Christmas pudding studded with thripence and sixpence but a little light on red jelly cherries in the fruit mix, the price of my ‘helping’. I still have my nanna’s trifle bowl, smallish but cut crystal and treasured, big enough for each of us to savour sufficient portions of pale sunshine coloured custard and buttery cake both made with freshly laid eggs and creamy milk from their dairy cows, sprinkled with a little of my grandfather’s sweet sherry some of which might have also been tipped into an accompanying small glass for the cook, studded with glistening slices of peaches picked from the orchard and preserved in jars, dotted with spoonfuls of shiny multi-hued jelly.
Somehow my nanna conjured festive food miracles akin to biblical loaves and fishes. Counting my grandparents, aunts and uncles home for the holidays, and assorted visitors we might number more than ten for Christmas lunch which would be plentiful enough to require a postprandial nap, followed by the cool joy of a salad of leftovers for tea which is what as dairy farmers they called the meal eaten around 5 pm, and later when the news was on the black and white television (likely purchased along with the Kelvinator, the only nod to modernity in the house), a pot of tea and small bowls of remaining sweets.
If you mention Christmas food to my family members of the era, their collective recollection will be my nanna’s egg mayonnaise which I remember dressed our Christmas tea and Boxing Day salads -lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, tinned beetroot & pineapple, potatoes, ham, chicken- in cold creamy deliciousness. A secret recipe apparently but after some family conferring my aunt and I agree this is it, although I’m inclined to the milk version.
That Christmas when I was six was the last for my beloved nanna. She died one hot afternoon in late February after I had gone back to school, in her sleep on the green vinyl night and day sofa in the living room where there might have been a few remaining pine needles escaped her housekeeping in the crevice between the carpet and the wall in the small corner next to the fireplace. I found her there cold to my inquiring touch having arrived home after walking up from the school bus drop off to a too quiet house just ahead of my Pa who had popped over the river to the lucerne paddocks.
Fresh from Christmas’ recent incarnation which saw the G.O. and I visit and celebrate with my family a few days before, in their merry style. Everyone enjoyed catching up and had a good time. Back at home for Christmas eve, one of my favourite days, we spent it with the usual soundtrack of carols in kitchen and lawnmower in the yard. My local in-law family opted out of Christmas celebrations this year… and after the event were a bit sorry but it meant on Christmas Day we pleased ourselves, barbequed breakfast, exchanged Christmas morning phone calls with faraway family, opened a few gifts, visited the in-laws, walked on the beach and later enjoyed a quiet festive food dinner.
Yuletide, for me, is timely alchemy of intangible festal mood and tangible: our hand-me-down tree with its lights and decorations all the more loved after fourteen December Christmases and one July; gifts squirreled away through the year; wreath on the front door; sparkly lights woven through a tree in the front garden to cheer passing night-time festive travellers, which the G.O. and I once were; seasonal home cooking that brings to mind food our grandmothers made… manifestations of my memories in a contemporary setting.
Christmas is occasion for quiet communion with my ghosts who are never far away anyway, at home with the life and place I’m at now that quite resembles theirs’, no accident, I’m inclined to believe. In my early fifties, three years beyond the age my nanna attained, I get to experience the other side of the festive coin. Now a step-grandmother, I found satisfaction and joy in our inaugural family Christmas in July when the kids’ -old and young- eyes lit up at the array of simple food I had made, planning already the next year’s festivities before they departed to their home a few hours drive down the coast, and talking about the food for months afterwards.
Just a few weeks after Christmas past is a felicitous time to look forward festively, not a year ahead but to our next gathering in July: holiday ambience invoked by our tree in cheery adornments of white ribbon, red hearts and -of course- lights, adjacent to the living room wood fire which will be lit and around which we’ll gather to eat dessert and open gifts. Devised as a family gathering -eschewing the bandwagon of mid-winter commercial trendiness- an opportunity to partake not only of gifts and comfort food but timeless pastimes en famille of brisk strolls, and toasted marshmallows around the pot belly fire outdoors… circumventing the pressure cooker of December festive negotiations and obligations.
“When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things – not the great occasions – give off the greatest glow of happiness.” ― Bob Hope